Using a "Safe Space" to Develop Diversity

How do we build a diverse culture at our startups if we haven't established a safe space to discuss our differences? There's a lot of talk about having a diverse workforce, but if we all come to work every day without the ability to genuinely engage each other with our differences, is the organization truly diverse?

September 30th, 2020   |    By: Wil Schroter

One of the challenges we've been tackling internally at Startups.com, and I'd imagine lots of other startups, is breaking down how we communicate in a diverse workforce. We feel that diversity shouldn't just be about hiring, it should be about understanding.

In fact, it stands to reason that the more diverse our workforce becomes, the less implicit understanding we will have amongst ourselves. Our backgrounds will become so different that what we say and how we respond will have less and less common ground.

I wanted to share one step we're taking to address this challenge in hopes that others will share their experiences too (by the way, the "reply" button on these goes directly to me, the Founder). One of our focus areas has been creating a "safe space" to begin to share what's on our mind without the fear of being attacked. It's actually a much harder problem than it sounds like because it requires unwinding generations of assumptions.

But it's worth the effort.

A Safe Space to be Wrong

After the brutal murder of George Floyd, our staff wanted to know how our company would respond. People were visibly enraged, as was I. But then something shitty happened — I hesitated. I was so fearful of saying the wrong thing that instead I said nothing at all — which was much worse. I later apologized and explained my hesitation but the bigger problem loomed — why didn't I feel safe to address the issue?

At its core, I didn't feel safe to be wrong. I didn't know how our team would react, no matter what I said, which forced me to dial back. That's a huge problem because if I'm not comfortable communicating as the CEO, it's safe to say the rest of our staff has similar challenges.

As such, we knew we had to develop a "safe space" at the company where people could ask hard questions — even if they knew they might be wrong. It had to be a place where those responding were willing to educate, not just lash out. We'd like to replace "How dare you!" with "Let me give you another perspective." The more we feel safe to communicate, the more we learn, but neither will happen without a mechanism for us to share effectively. We started with a Slack group, but I'm interested to see what that morphs into.

Replacing Statements with Questions

We're also developing a different way to approach our dialogue. We're trying to get in the habit of replacing statements ("You're wrong about that!") with questions ("Can you help me understand why you feel that way?").

All too often we make broken assumptions about why people feel the way that they do. We forget that there is a lifetime of experiences behind our words, yet we often project our own experiences on to how other people think. One way to address this is by always starting with an honest question that allows the speaker to explain the nuances of their concern while helping the audience to fill in gaps. For what it's worth, this is how nearly every good conversation should work.

Trust Comes From Repetition

There's no way we can build our beautiful Circle of Trust without lots and lots of repetitions. Initially, very few people will engage, so we have to be mindful that no matter how we project a "safe space" those words will only have meaning when folks have seen real action that supports that notion. We're trying to get the wheels turning by asking our Diversity Committee to get extra active around questions and conversations to help set the tone for this dialogue.

That challenge gets compounded as more and more new people come on board. We will have to earn new trust with each new employee who will likely have come from a previous organization that hasn't had anywhere near this level of engagement. This is going to be a long, long journey.

But you know what? There's no other way. Until we can establish trust and develop together over time, we'll never be truly diverse. No matter how hard it is, or how long it takes, we're determined to get this right.

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About the Author

Wil Schroter

Wil Schroter is the Founder + CEO @ Startups.com, a startup platform that includes BizplanClarity, Fundable, Launchrock, and Zirtual. He started his first company at age 19 which grew to over $700 million in billings within 5 years (despite his involvement). After that he launched 8 more companies, the last 3 venture backed, to refine his learning of what not to do. He's a seasoned expert at starting companies and a total amateur at everything else.

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